Collective failure – the Faizabad judgement

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On Wednesday 6th February the Supreme Court delivered a judgment that was a scathing critique of just about every office of state in the way they engaged with the Faizabad sit-in during 2017. Observers and commentators at the time were painfully aware of the rolling failure that accompanied this farrago, but it has taken the Supreme Court to do the forensic analysis that lays the failures bare. Nobody escapes – the government of the day in the broadest sense, the media across all its platforms, the intelligence agencies, the army, the Election Commission of Pakistan and the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (Pemra) all get a tongue lashing.

The media were midwife to the monster of the TLP, which had hitherto been one of the minor political splinters that litter the stage. It gave a daily platform to the TLP leaders to deliver inflammatory, abusive and aggressive statements. The politicians of the day were little better as they delivered inflammatory speeches across the channels and representatives of a range of mainstream parties comported themselves with less than the requisite decorum. Violence spread across the country. Property was damaged, Rs 163.95 million-worth of it, and it was all media fodder. The TLP did not obtain permission to stage a rally or a sit-in, and the TLP leadership repeatedly broke undertakings to move the protest to the area designated for such. The state was feeble and powerless, either by default or willful neglect.

At the core of the judgment was the observation that individual rights cannot be exercised by infringing the rights of others. People must be allowed to carry on their daily lives, run their shops and businesses and poor daily-wagers go to their jobs unhindered; and the freedom of association and the right of assembly must not be exercised by infringing the fundamental rights of others.

Turning to the media the judgment says that PEMRA had multiple failures. It failed to fulfill its duty when channels violated their terms of license, allowed at least one channel to openly support – and feed – the squatters at Faizabad as well as failing to protect the legitimate rights of licensed broadcasters. Failures do not come much more comprehensive than that. It did nothing to protect the interests of licensees when cable channels were illegally interdicted, turning a blind eye and deaf ear to complaints. It has subsequently refused to cooperate with investigation.

Censorship of the print media was criticised, both overt and covert, as being unconstitutional and illegal, likewise the suppression of dissent by independent journalists. Unusually the armed forces were criticised for the cash handouts that were distributed at Faizabad as the incident wound down, a move seen as aligning the military with a particular political party. Politicking by the military undermines the professionalism and integrity of the armed forces as a whole. And lastly, the ECP gets a drubbing for failing to persuade the TLP to account for the source of its funding, pleading that in this instance ‘the law is cosmetic’. Well ECP the law is not cosmetic and is there to be fulfilled and upheld. You failed.

It is now almost two years post-Faizabad, there is a different government in power and it has to be wondered quite what has changed. To be sure there are a number of firebrand clerics currently in detention, and the government does appear to be willing to nip nascent extremist activity in the bud – an encouraging sign. The Faizabad incident was a modern low point in the national narrative, illustrating just how decayed the state was at an institutional level. That point has to be the point at which the state begins to heal itself, but we expect a slow rather than a dramatic, recovery.